24 December 2007

My boyfriend thinks I gave him herpes

My boyfriend just told me that he has a herpes-like sore on his genitals. He believes I gave it to him, but I haven’t slept with anybody else since March, and it is now December. Could I have it, and I just haven’t had an outbreak? Could it be something different?

JP Duc

Hi Jennifer,

Thanks for writing in. The first important issue about sores located in the genital area is that it might indeed represent one of the symptoms of an STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection), be it Herpes or another infection. It is crucial for you and your partner to go and see a qualified medical professional and be tested for STIs (Sexual Transmitted Infections). That is the only way to be absolutely sure whether or not you have an infection, as many of the STIs have a prolonged latent phase, i.e. a period when you are completely asymptomatic.

Each STI is treated differently. STIs are caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites, and some can be treated with antibiotics. However, if the STI is caused by a virus, there is no cure, although antivirals can delay the progression of symptoms or diminish the severity of the infection. It is important to get tested and to consult a qualified physician, because some infections can be more serious than others, and some could potentially cause you or your partner serious health problems if they are not detected and/or treated in time.

It is common to carry an infection and not to be aware of its existence. More specifically, up to 60% of people who have genital Herpes infection show no signs of the disease and are unaware that they are infected. This does not mean you were in fact the person who infected him, as 1 in 6 adults is thought to carry this infection, and because the latency period can vary. This latency period is a stage during which the virus goes into hiding. It can be found in cells, but it is not active. There are no external symptoms that the virus is in the body. At some point, however, the virus becomes active again. This pattern explains why cold sores and genital herpes commonly appear and then disappear.

If indeed, the diagnosis of Herpes is confirmed by blood tests, there are a few things you can do to prevent recurrences: avoid physical or psychological triggers, use salt baths for the affected area and wear loose underwear. Antivirals can also help. However, antivirals only works while you are taking it, i.e. they do not cure the disease, and they may not prevent relapses in some cases either, though they do shorten the duration of a genital herpes outbreak and help speed healing. Finally, by avoiding sex when the signs of herpes are present, and by using condoms with sexual partners between outbreaks, the chance of passing on herpes may be reduced.

In addition, I must emphasize the importance of using adequate protection, even during oral sex. Everyone who chooses to be sexually active with one or more partners becomes fully responsible for their own safety as well as their partner’s protection. Once again, protection (such as a condom) should be used in any type of intercourse including oral sex unless you and your partner have both been tested and are completely free of STIs. If you are not absolutely sure of this, use protection.

Also, if you touch, feel, finger, or masturbate your partner, make sure you thoroughly wash your hands with hot water and soap including under fingernails before and after contact. And remember don’t touch too close or inside mucous membranes (nostrils, lips, mouth, ears, genital area) because these areas can easily pick-up certain kinds of infections. These hygienic measures apply to sex toys as well, i.e. they should be cleaned and disinfected before and after sexual contact. Of course, you should remain aware that, although the procedures mentioned above reduce significantly the risk of being infected, even the use of a condom/dental dam does not fully protect against Herpes or Human Papilloma Virus.

The problem with STIs is that not only are there many kinds of infections but that even in one determined category, e.g. Human Papilloma Virus or (HPV) for example, there are about 30 different strains documented. According to Health Canada approximately 35 to 40% of people who are infected with an STI don’t even know they are infected as many infections have a latent period i.e. you might not see lesions, irritations or feel pain but you are nevertheless infected. The latent period varies according to the type of virus and its strain. Most STIs can be transmitted whether symptoms are present or not.

What is important is to keep communicating openly with your sexual partner about using protection and that using protection is not negotiable. Getting tested regularly is also essential especially if you remain sexually active.

Jean-Pierre for Project 10